INTERVIEWEE: Greg Lasley (GL)
INTERVIEWER: David Todd (DT)
DATE: November 9, 2018
LOCATION: Dripping Springs, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
SOURCE MEDIA: HD video
[Numbers mark the time codes for the interview.]
DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It is November 9, 2018. We are in Dripping Springs, Texas a little west of Austin. And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Greg Lasley, who has had a varied career from being a—in the Air Force to being on the police force here in Austin to in—in more recent years, being a—a nature guide, nature photographer, and an interpreter and—and identifier of wildlife. And I wanted to take the chance here to thank you for spending time with us.
GL: You’re very welcome. It’s my pleasure.
DT: Well good. We often start these interviews by talking about childhood and early exposure and experiences and I was curious if—if you could take us back in time and tell us about any early visits with nature or with people who—who were interested in the outdoor world?
GL: I guess if I had to pick a person from my early life who helped introduce me to nature, it would be my aunt—my mother’s sister. Her name was Emily Tait. As a young lady during World War II, her husband was in the Army and was overseas fighting—he was in the Battle of the Bulge and a number of conflicts against Germany. She had little bird books and she would go to Central Park in New York and around her home in Kimberton, Pennsylvania and identify birds.
And I still have her little books where she would write the date and the location where she would see a hermit thrush or a magnolia warbler or whatever. And so it’s been—it’s always been fun for me to look at her books and look at the birds she saw as a—as a woman during World War II, while her husband was overseas fighting. And I still have those books and they’re very important to me. And as a young kid through grade school, she was always taking me out on walks and we’d look at blue jays and other birds and she would always point out things in nature to me. And so she was very instrumental in some of my first interests in natural history.
DT: I think earlier, off camera, you had told me a little bit about wh—a very young Greg Lasley going out with her and seeing birds in New Jersey.
GL: Well as—this is something I don’t have a—a first person memory of but I was told it by both my parents and by my aunt—as a little ki—I was born in New York. My father was in the military. And, at that time, he was stationed in Port Monmouth, New Jersey. And I was born in a—in the military hospital in New York. But anyway, as a little kid, one year old, my aunt would take me walking along the New Jersey Shore and she would be carrying me or I’d be walking alongside of her and she would point out ospreys that were flying overhead.
And I was told that one of my first words was ospey because I would point to the birds and, after she had called them out so many times, I would point to the birds and say ospey. So, again, I don’t have a memory of that personally but that’s what I was told. So it’s a good story. [laughing]
DT: I like it. I like it.
DT: I think that—that I had read and—and maybe you can tell me if this is so that—that not only were you interested in ospeys and ospreys but—but also in snakes. So you had a—a broad interest in—in wildlife.
GL: Yes, I—as a young person, I—I got into the Boy Scouts when I was eleven years old. And going to my first summer camp, I actually got the Bird Study Merit Badge but I also was very interested in snakes. And so I caught my first hognose snake which, as you may know, is a snake that has a attitude of being very aggressive and bluffing but it’s actually quite harmless. But I still remember seeing this hognose snake spread its—its neck skin like a cobra and hiss and I still have a distinct memory of this hognose snake.
And I remember being with other boys and catching garter snakes and things of that nature. So this experience as an eleven year old fostered interest in—in snakes. And, through my teenage years, I was more leaning toward snakes as an interest than I was birds. And all the way through working at a number of summer camps myself, including some summer camps in Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico in ’67 and ’68, I did a lot of hunting for snakes, looking at snakes, but also I got involved with birds.
DT: So you were a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch?
GL: Yes, the summers of ’67 and ’68, which were my junior and senior years of high school, I spent those summers working as a, what they called a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. And I—I led scout troops out for their first four days on their two week trip and we’d get them initiated with the proper procedures for cooking and doing things the Philmont way and all that. But I also had a big interest in snakes and birds and I had a friend and I that, on our off days, we would often go out and look for snakes and look for birds.
And so that was, you know, I was seventeen and eighteen years old but I think I probably developed into quite the bird watcher and snake hunter during those years especially.
DT: Can you recall any—any particular outings or snake hunting trips that you might have taken?
GL: Well the friend lived in Oklahoma and he was a falconer and he had a prairie falcon that had been—and, again, the statute of limitations has all expired on this I’m sure but I’m sure this falcon was taken out of a—out of a nest as a young bird and I’m sure there were laws that were violated in the ‘60s about—I don’t know what permits he had or did not have—we’re talking about eighteen year old kids who were stupid and I guess that’s redundant. But anyway, he had a falcon and we would go out and fly.
He’d—he’d worked with hawks for a while and he was quite knowledgeable about the art of falconry or as knowledgeable as an eighteen year old kid can be. And so we would fly his falcon and occasionally a wild prairie falcon would fly in and try to stoop or come down on his prairie falcon. And I got to watch all this interaction. He was always watching for golden eagles because golden eagles are known to attack a—a trained falcon sometimes because it’s not quite as maneuverable I guess as a totally wild bird. And so he was always careful.
He didn’t fly his bird when there were golden eagles around. And we would often come to Texas. We would have—we would work three or four days in a row and then have two or three days off. And we would get in a car and we often drove to Palo Duro Canyon in—near—near Amarillo. And we would—we would catch tarantulas. We’d catch snakes. We would—we would look at birds and he was more involved with birds and I was more involved with snakes at that time.
So driving down the road, I didn’t miss anything that crossed the road and he didn’t miss any bird that went by. So between the two of us, a couple of eighteen year old kids, we saw everything. And we—I wasn’t photographing anything but we were more interested in catching everything. So we didn’t catch birds but we sure—certainly caught a lot of snakes and ground critters and we saw a lot of birds. But I still remember trips to Palo Duro Canyon, trips to the Oklahoma Panhandle around Boise City, Oklahoma to the—oh the very far northwestern corner of the Oklahoma Panhandle, which is fairly adjacent to New Mexico.
So we would take three and four day trips there and sleep in the back of the car and just do the things that nerdy kids that are interested in nature would do, quite unlike a lot of other kids our age that were more interested in doing whatever, you know, partying or whatever. We were out catching bugs and snakes.
DT: And so you—would you catch these and then—and then keep them in a—in a cage or a crate?
GL: Yes, we—you know, this day and age, that’s—it’s not a good idea and I—there’s a lot of things about catching snakes and keeping snakes in aquariums that I now regret because I caught a lot of snakes. We kept a lot. And we’d often release them a month or two later back in the areas we caught them but I—it’s probably not good to take things out of nature. And I—I kind of frown on that now. But we’re talking 1967 and ’68 when a lot of us didn’t know any better or at least I use that as an excuse. And so we—we caught things.
We would—oh I’d catch mice to feed snakes. We would feed snakes frogs that we caught and all that sort of thing. And so we would take them back to Philmont and there was a nature area that we had access to and there was a wonderful gentleman by the name of Jerry Traut, who was—he was really old. He was like 35 and he was a professor at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. And he ran the nature area at Philmont. And Jerry had taken a liking to us—to we two kids and, like I say, he was an old man of 35 but still we—we spent a lot of time with Jerry.
He taught us a lot and he let us keep our snakes in this area where they had aquariums and cages and we had pretty free access to where all the cages were. And so we did a lot of stuff there.
DT: Well speaking of—of cages, I—I understand that—that around this time, maybe a little bit later, you worked at the Atlanta Zoo. Is that…?
GL: Well during the same period of time, there were tw—about—for a year and a half I worked as a helper at the zoo in Atlanta, Georgia—the Grant Park Zoo—in the Reptile House. And so I would—it was kind of a part time job after school and during the summers and—and I kind of helped out cleaning cages and doing things like that at the zoo. And so I got a lot of exposure to animals that are not native to the U.S.
And I think back now and there were times I would put on my zoo uniform and take snakes
I had at home like rattlesnakes or whatever and I would take them to elementary schools and I would give demonstrations of milking rattlesnakes or things of that nature, which this day and age in our current society, there would never be a seventeen year old kid allowed to handle poisonous snakes in an elementary school. But I did that and—and I would take these snakes and I would ex—have snake talks I gave and I would stand in front of people and I’d bring sn—a lot of non-poisonous snakes out and let the kids pass them around.
But I also handled venomous snakes. Looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. It was probably not safe. I acknowledge all that now but, at the time, I thought I was providing information for elementary school kids. And there’s a picture or two of me somewhere holding a cottonmouth water moccasin in front of a bunch of little elementary kids all around me, which would be absolutely verboten now, with our society and the dangers involved with a venomous snake with children. But I did it.
DT: Well, you know, I—I think it’s extraordinary that you found sort of fellow travelers who were interested in this, you know, your friend at Philmont and your—your mentor, I guess there as well. And—and I—but I also understand that there were sometimes—I think I read somewhere that—that you would take young girls—female friends who—on dates to go investigate snakes. And—and did that always work out well?
GL: Well yeah, that—that was a little bit later. I—I entered the—the U. S. military in 1969. And I had been away for about a year and I had a high school girlfriend. And I came back on leave about a year later and convinced her that we’re going snake hunting. And so we drove down to central Georgia—this was—at this time I was living in Atlanta, Georgia. So we drove down to an area I knew near Macon, Georgia and, again, I did a lot of sleeping in vehicles in those days and I had an old Volkswagen bus.
And we went out in the middle of the night with flashlights looking for—for rattlesnakes—canebrake rattlesnakes—which is now considered a subspecies of a timber rattlesnake. But I still remember walking around at night with her in the rain with flashlights and catching rattlesnakes. And this is something not many people did on a—on a date with their girlfriend but yeah, we did this a few times. She was a good sport about it. But it was a—it was different. I—I was a little different than most kids my age.
DT: Well let’s—let’s maybe move forward a little bit. I understand that you had a—a stint in the U. S. Air Force. Is that correct?
GL: Yeah, I was in the Air Force for a little over four years, 1969 to 1973. And, I have to say during that period of time, I didn’t do a lot of natural history things. I was a crew member on an Air Force cargo plane. So I computed weight and balance of—of a C130 aircraft. And so I was part of the crew. So we flew missions all over the world. I—I was—I visited oh thirty different countries. You know, I spent some time in Southeast Asia, Europe, North Africa, you know, all over—Japan, you know, during this period of time. And I didn’t do a lot of natural history stuff.
But I always still—I look back now and I regret that because I would spend three or four days in Alaska at Elmendorf Air Force Base and now I wish I’d spent some time looking for birds and animals. But, at that time, I—I drank beer and—and—and played poker.
DT: Well and I understood that after you—you got out of the military, if I—I’m correct, you went to work for the police department if I’m correct?
GL: I—I actually drove a milk truck for six months delivering milk here in Austin in ’73. And I was just absolutely bored because I’d spent four years in the military and I’d been in—I’d been in Vietnam, I’d been in a number of places where my job was fairly fast pace and adrenaline involved and now I’m driving a milk truck delivering milk. And I had gotten out of the service because I had promised my girlfriend that I would get out and we’d get married and she could go back to graduate school and I would finish college.
But it’s hard for two people to go to school as non-residents if you don’t have the financial resources. So I had to get a job while she went back to graduate school. And so I ended up getting a job driving a milk truck. And after a few months, I just decided I can’t do this. This is crazy. And I happened to run into a young police officer one day at a coffee shop where I was having breakfast or whatever and he had just gotten out of the military about a year earlier and had been on the Austin Police Department for a year and was really enjoying what he did.
He felt he was really having a good time and making a contribution and he really enjoyed his job. And he said you ought to apply because they’re accepting applications now. So I went down the next day and applied and a few weeks later I was called in to take some tests and I did that. And a few weeks later I was called in to take some more tests. And between psychological tests and medical tests and other tests, all of a sudden, I found myself in the Austin Police Academy. And six months later, found myself as a young Austin police officer.
And I thought well I’ll do this for a couple years and I ended up staying and making it a career. So that was what I did for my career.
DT: And—and do you—do you feel like there—there were overlaps, interactions with your interest in the out of doors or was it a pretty all-consuming kind of career?
GL: As a police officer, I was a police officer and it’s a different persona than being somebody involved with nature, and I’ve got funny stories about the two interacting, you know, years later. But I also maintained a very strong interest in birds because I started going to meetings with the auto—Travis Audubon, things of that nature, in the early ‘70s. But people that knew me as a police officer, knew me as a police officer. People that knew me as a birdwatcher, knew me as a birdwatcher.
And when one would find out I was also the other, there was always this shock about I can’t imagine you as a police officer, or I can’t imagine you as a birdwatcher type of thing. So I was able to maintain two different personas. At that time, I think police officers—I don’t know, I just—most police officers had a way different way of handling themselves than those birdwatchers do. And I was a cop’s cop and I was a birdwatcher’s birdwatcher but I didn’t cross the two very often because I didn’t want—I was afraid I’d get a lot of ridicule from other police officers.
So I stayed in the closet, if you will, as a birdwatcher for many years. I didn’t—I didn’t talk about what I was doing birdwatching to my police friends except one or two but then I didn’t talk a lot about being a police officer among birdwatchers. So I kind of maintained myself in two different worlds at that time.
DT: Well did you find that—that birdwatching was a comfort or a release, you know, from the stresses of being a police officer?
GL: I did. I—I enjoyed my days off. My—my first wife and I were interested in birds together. We would take trips—went to Colorado, went to Big Bend in West Texas, we went to the Texas Coast, we went to—oh, once took a trip to California to look at birds. So we did a lot of trips to look at birds and even around Austin. I spent a lot of time on my days off going out to enjoy nature. And yeah, it’s a real, for me, it was a real stress reliever. I mean, as a police officer, you deal with a lot of the bad things in society.
And I, as a patrol officer in Austin, I saw little bit of everything—good and bad. And so there were times when it was just really a relief for me to go out and look at nature and not have to deal with—with violence and people that had been shot or various things like that.
DT: I think in passing, you had mentioned that while you were a police officer, you were also starting to be engaged with Travis Audubon. And—and I was wondering if you could tell the story of how you first got entrée there and…?
GL: Well what—what happened is—so, as a kid, I’d been interested in birds. And when I first was married to my first wife, her mother gave us a birdwatching field guide and it was a field guide that had pictures of three buntings on the cover. It was a painted bunting, an indigo bunting, and a lazuli bunting, that were on the cover of this book. And I still have a copy of it somewhere here. And I’d looked at that many times and I’d seen an indigo bunting but I’d never seen the other two but I was aware of the book.
And so, as a young police officer in Austin, once I had a steady job, we were able to afford to buy a little house in South Austin. And so one of the first things I did was put up a bird feeder. And with—the house was a fair—was a new construction. It had been—they had built it in an area that had been brush and fields and juniper woodland. And so I had a little—little bird feeder in the backyard. And I was working the night shift at that time so I would have worked ten at night until six in the morning and then I’d come home at six and I would have breakfast, drink a cup of coffee or whatever and then go to bed.
And so she and I were sitting at our kitchen table and on the bird feeder one morning in the late spring, was a painted bunting. It was a male painted bunting and I recognized it immediately because that’s the bird that’s on the cover of this bird guide. And so every morning I’d come home and we’d look forward to seeing the painted bunting that would show up on the bird feeder. And I said gee, it’d be nice to learn a little bit more about the birds of this area.
And so we looked up Audubon Society and we found out that Travis Audubon had a meeting every—once a month and so we went to one of the Travis Audubon Society meetings and I met a gentleman by the name of Ed Kutac. And Ed was one of the movers and shakers of Travis Audubon in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He was a fine gentleman, a really knowledgeable, naturalist on Central Texas. And Ed kind of took me under his wing and—and Ed would take me on trips to Inks Lake and to Marble Falls and to Travis Audubon Society.
And so I got to see a lot of birds with Ed and learn that there were more birds out there than painted buntings. And so I have to credit Ed with being my birding mentor and who took me on a lot of trips and just really took me under his wing.
DT: Can you talk a little bit more about other birding partners and—and birding trips you might have taken?
GL: Well there were many people in the ‘70s who were very active in Travis Audubon. Alma Barrera, Fred Webster, of course, Ed Kutac, who I mentioned, Ron and Marcia Braun. All these were folks who were really knowledgeable and I looked up to because they’d been birdwatching for a number of years and I was just getting started in ’74-’75 but they’d been birdwatching, in Ed’s case many years, and some of the other cases, maybe four or five years.
And they had what was to me a great deal of experience. And so we went on trips to the—Travis Audubon would have birdwatching trips to the Texas coast, to Big Bend, places like that. And so I went on a lot of trips like that with Travis Audubon and with some of these other folks who were leading these trips. And just learned an incredible amount during those years from these and many other people. And there were a lot of us in—in my sort of stage that were gaining knowledge but still kind of new at looking at birds and a lot of us hung around together and we learned quickly and developed knowledge on how to identify certain birds.
And, over a period of years, we just kind of grew up in the birding world together. The—and a lot of them are still around. I’ve got a lot of friends out there that oh, they’re old people like me now but they’re, you know, back in those days, we were youngsters in our twenties.
DT: Well and some of this I guess would be just weekend outings but did you also do more organized things like Christmas counts?
GL: Oh yeah. I got involved with the Christmas bird counts in the—in the ‘70s, did many—I’d do three or four, five a year here. In fact, I was the compiler of the Palmetto State Park Christmas count for at least a decade. I do—I can’t give you the years exactly but I was the compiler of that count for many years. But I did Bastrop. I did Austin, and I did—I would go out and do counts at Big Bend, but I did lots of Christmas counts.
DT: Can you explain, for those who aren’t familiar with Christmas counts, how that—how that—a typical one would work?
GL: A Christmas bird count is not really scientific and a lot of people will argue that it’s not scientifically beneficial at all. But they also will anol—acknowledge that it is a fairly good monitor of early winter season bird distribution. So what happens is there’s a fifteen mile diameter circle and there are many hundreds of these fifteen mile diameter circles across the United States and other parts of the world.
And a—a Christmas count is gathering as many people as you can that are interested to go to different areas within this fifteen mile diameter circle over a single 24 hour period during a two week period of time roughly around Christmas. They usually start 14th or 15th of December and go through to the first few days of January. And you just have to pick a day, quite often they’re on weekends because that’s when people are off—and as many people as can work a given area within this circle.
You’re—you normally will have a person who’s an area leader and they’ll have two or three people that help them and you have geographical area bounded by this road and that road and whatever road and you try to have access to private lands or—or whatever you can. And you literally tally every bird that you can. Like one group will be out in this one field and they’ll say well we—we saw twelve song sparrows and we had fourteen cardinals and we had this and we had that.
Well all these areas then all of their totals are combined and there’s a—a—at the end of the day, they get together and all these areas put all their numbers together and eventually, there’s a—a list of how many species and how many individuals of each species were tallied. Now obviously, if you’re in a part of rural West Texas and you have four people is all you can get together to do this count, it’s going to be different than three hundred people at—somewhere around Houston. Granted the numbers will be more—you’ll have more coverage when you have more people but still these counts are done the same way every year.
And so the data is interesting, comparing year to year and they’re all published. And so you can look at data from 1963 and compare it to data from 2017 and see whoa, we used to get three and four hundred cardinals every—every Christmas count and now we’re only getting six to ten. What’s wrong? And so there are general comparisons that can be made. But it’s a—it’s a social event but it’s also an event that gets people together in the field to try to get a handle on what birds are moving in for the winter, what birds are not, is there an invasion of this species and not of that species and things of that nature. So it’s a lot of fun to do and I’ve done many of them over the years.
DT: And—and one of the roles that you played, as I understood, was as compiler. So are you sort of the judge of people’s reports?
GL: Yes, you—I compiled the Palmetto State Park Christmas bird count for at least ten years—it might have been fifteen—in the ‘80s and—and early ‘90s I guess. And as the compiler, you take all these—all the information that’s brought in from the different areas and you’re the one who makes the final list of species and individuals. Now you will have—on occasion, there will be folks that might report something very rare or something that doesn’t even occur in Texas or, in some cases, doesn’t even occur in North America, and they—they think they’ve seen this.
Well nowadays with all the digital photography out there, a lot of times you’ll have photos of this bird and you can say wow, that’s what this is. It’s only the third record for Texas or something very notable. Or other times, people will report something that just doesn’t have any backing to go with it and the compiler is obligated to just disallow that as well I can’t report something that’s never been reported in Texas before based on you think you saw it type of thing. You know, if you don’t have photos, you don’t have really detailed written documentation; it’s very hard to accept these things.
And so a compiler has to make those decisions. And, of course, there’s a state compiler who compiles all the counts for Texas and he may see a count reported by—or he may see a bird reported by a certain count in a certain part of the state and contact that compiler and say ah, what about this farkleberry warbler, you know, we’ve never had a farkleberry warbler in Texas. What do you—and—and they’ll say well this is what we had and this, you know, and so there’s a decision made as to whether it’s reported finally or whether it’s not.
So it’s—there’s a review process for anything unusual. But it’s—it all adds to data compiled every year about bird distribution across the U.S.
DT: Well so you were talking about Christmas counts and being a compiler, and I was wondering if you also did any censuses in those days with—with Audubon or with some of your other friends?
GL: Yeah, I—I have a lot of friends who know a lot more than I do. And so I have participated in a lot of point counts for various things. I’ve been with various biologists doing censuses on wildlife refuges, on certain tracts of land, things of that nature. So I’ve been fortunate to spend a lot of time with a lot of knowledgeable biological folks who I’ve learned from. But I’ve done censuses for a certain species. I’ve done—oh I’ve spent a lot of time in Big Bend doing censuses for Colima warbler, which is a—a bird that within the U.S. only occurs in Big Bend.
So I’ve—I’ve been with a lot of people and done a lot of things like that, not that I’ve compiled them but I’ve helped out on many things of that nature.
DT: Well, is there a—maybe just to give us an example—is there maybe a—a couple of—of census efforts that you’ve done that you can describe so people get a picture of—of what that involves?
GL: Well I guess one of the most—things that people know about is there’s a bird called the Colima warbler that within the U.S. only occurs in Big Bend National Park. And if people who live in New York or California want to see a Colima warbler within the U.S., they’ve got to go to Texas and they have to go to Big Bend. And you’ve got to climb up into the mountains. It’s not an easy thing to do for a lot of folks. But there have been censuses of Colima warblers done since the ‘60s, often just by one or two people in the last—and they’re usually done every five years.
Now there’s often thirty, forty people involved that will hit different areas of the park. And some years, there’s only twenty, twenty-five birds. Other years there’s several hundred. And so it just depends on—on the population that year and how they’re doing. But there’s been quite a—quite an effort to monitor the population of Colima warblers within Big Bend. And I’ve helped out on censuses for Colima warbler a number of times and it’s—you feel like you’re making a contribution because it’s a bird that, like I say, in the U.S. is only in Big Bend.
And so to keep track of where they are, how they’re doing, the—the health of the population in drought years like 2011 and times like that, there’s problems with food sources for these birds and maybe a lot of them just aren’t there. They may stay somewhere in Mexico. So each year’s a little different. But that’s been a lot of fun to help out with that and other types of counts. I’ve done counts on different wildlife refuges trying to keep up with where certain species are, things like that.
DT: And when you are doing these counts, do you ever band the birds?
Well I—I actually got interested in banding in about 1980 because I had some friends who were—were master banders. And I helped out with the banding project on the Texas Coast in 1980. And I’d—seemed like something interesting to do and I think the requirements for being a bander at that time were less stringent than they are now. But anyway, I applied to be a bander and I had to get several banders to write letters of recommendation for me and I knew a number of banders. I knew some professors of ornithology at that time and they wrote letters of recommendation.
So in 1981, I became a—a bird bander. And from ’81 through about ’90, I was very, very active and I had a banding station on the property of a friend in Driftwood, Texas. And we—we banded thousands of birds there and had some very interesting recoveries where birds that we banded would be recovered in some other part of the nation or we would catch a bird that had a band on it that had been banded in Pennsylvania, for example. And so it was—all the data, of course, goes into the bird banding lab and all the data helps document where birds go at different times of the year and all that.
But, for me, it just really brought about a knowledge of how interconnected all the stuff is. Like there’s—there’s a example I like to tell people. There’s a small bird called a ruby-crowned kinglet, tiny little five inch long bird that only winters in Texas but they breed in the conifer forest of Canada and extreme northern U.S. Well one year in October, we caught a ruby-crowned kinglet—we caught lots of them—but this was a ruby-crowned kinglet that we caught in a—in a net at a certain net. And so we banded this ruby-crowned kinglet and released it.
And I think one other time during the winter we caught that bird. So the birds learn where the nets are and they avoid the nets once they’ve been caught, in general. So we caught that bird maybe one other time during the winter and in the spring, of course, these birds leave and go north. So the following year in October, we caught a ruby-crowned kinglet in this—this net. And here was old number 63479 or whatever that we’d banded a year earlier. Now this bird that weighs just a few grams, had flown all the way to the conifer forest of Canada, had nested presumably, and had flown back.
This little, tiny bird that you can’t even feel the weight in your hand, had not only found Texas without a map, had not only found Hays County, Texas, had not only found this property, but found the same little grove of trees where he’d been caught a year earlier. We caught that bird for seven years in a row. Every October, that bird would forget where the net was from the previous year and he’d stumble into the net. And we caught this bird seven years in a row. And I ss—you know, these birds only live a couple or three years maybe.
So I’m sure he finally expired. But this little bird, every fall, we’d catch him once or twice and then wouldn’t catch him the rest of the winter. And then, of course, he’s gone all summer. He’s in the conifer forest. And so you realize that these animals have very strong sight fidelity to a spot. This bird was in the same little grove of trees no larger than this house. That was his winter home. He lived there. That’s his spot. No other ruby-crowned kinglets lived there, just this one.
And so you realize that when you lose this grove of trees, if somebody bulls it—or bulldozes it down, this bird’s got to find somewhere else and he’s going to be competing with other ruby-crowned kinglets to find another home. So it gives you a perspective on these little animals that are in the world—birds, whatever—that they really—they—they need the areas that they have. And this little bird, for seven years, came back to this same little spot and I’ve always thought that was kind of magical that he could find this place.
DT: I had understood that—that some of the—the census work you did with Chuck Sexton and—and helped report for it was an American Birds Field Notes—I guess it’s been called different things over the years. And I was hoping you could explain what that work was like and…?
GL: American Birds is a publication—it was originally by the National Audubon Society and finally the American Birding Association took it over and it’s been called American Birds, it’s been called North American Birds. Early on, it was called Audubon Field Notes. But what it is is it is a seasonal compilation of birds in a given geographical area. And, for many years, a gentleman by the name of Fred Webster wrote the report for South Texas. And he finally was into—well into his mid to late sixties back in the 1980s, early 1980s, and he asked Chuck and I to take over the duties of doing this.
And what the duties entailed were that we would be in touch with several hundred other observers in Texas. And back in the days before email, we literally would send out hundreds of stamped envelopes with a seasonal letter—Dear Friends, you know, the spring 1984 season is coming to a close. Can you please put together a report from your area what was notable about what you saw in your part of Texas, what—were there any rarities? Were there any this? Were there any that? Was there a movement of American robins into your area?
Was there not a movement of American robins into your area? And so people would send us written reports in the mail with stamps and sometimes these would be a couple of paragraphs and sometimes they might be twenty pages. And they would come from different areas of the state. And we had several hundred people we communicated with regularly. And so we would get all of these reports and then Chuck and I would sit down over a three or four day period and have all these things scattered over a big table. And this was originally on typewriters.
Later—later on word processing. But we would say—we would have all these things—we would say okay, we’d—we would say okay, we got a interesting report about—about blue jays—a big migration of blue jays that were in East Texas on this date and here’s another report from Northeast Texas where they had a huge migration of blue jays—people saw four hundred blue jays moving south and blah, blah, blah. And so we would try to write a four, five, six thousand word report that put together what had occurred in Texas during spring, fall, winter, what have you, 1984 or ’85 or ’86 or—as the—as you will.
And so we would write this report and it would later be published. And so Chuck and I were the—were the co-editors for the Texas region of American Birds for more than twenty years. And so four times a year, we would write this—this big report. And they’re still published and I have—I have scores and scores of them in magazines in another room. And so it’s fun to go back now and somebody wants to know well what happened in 1997 during the spring that was notable in Texas? Well we have all that. It’s all published.
Now it’s all computerized. And so participating in things like that, with the help of hundreds of other people in Texas, Chuck and I just put it together into a report—was something else that gives you a real awareness of—of your state and of—you know, there were many things that we would report of seeing in Texas that I also would notice in Nebraska, that they would also notice in the Dakotas. There was a movement of this species or that species that would be reflected in what we would see here. And so you kind of develop a realization of how everything ties together.
And it’s all interconnected. It’s not just us living in a vacuum with what birds show up in your yard. If there’s a food crop failure of a certain food in—in the conifer forest, a lot of these birds will come south all the way to Texas looking for food because they can’t find pine seeds because there’s a cone crop failure or things of that nature. So it—it gives you more of an awareness of the interconnectivity of everything that’s happening in—in wildlife that kind of broadens your horizons, broadens your knowledge of what’s going on around you. You’re not living in an isolated little spot. It’s all connected.
DT: Well maybe along those same lines, and I don’t know if this is—is a useful question but while we’re talking about being observant and reporting on what you see, did—did you ever work with the Breeding Bird Atlas?
GL: Yeah, I—for twenty years, I did three or four different breeding bird surveys for the breeding bird survey. It’s a federal deal to where you have fifty count, fifty stops, on a 24 ½ mile route on rural roads where there’s not too much traffic noise and you stop for three minutes and you record everything you hear, like we heard two northern cardinals, we heard one blue-gray gnatcatcher. We heard this, we heard that. And you record that for that stop and you move onto the next stop. And you don’t—you don’t sit there and wait longer than three minutes.
It’s done exactly the same way everywhere you go and you—you stop for three minutes and you set a stopwatch and you record everything you detect during that three minutes, either by sound or by sight. So you have to be familiar with the vocalizations of the local breeding birds spr—species. And normally these counts in Texas are done in May and early June when the birds are most vocal, the breeding species. And so that was something else I did for a number of years.
I—I last did a couple of counts that were on the outskirts of Austin but about four or five years ago, with the construction of 130—Texas 130—the noise became so intense from 130 that at least half the count, I couldn’t hear anything. So that happens. And the Breeding Bird Survey we finally just ended those counts because I would stop on the side of the road and the roar of traffic on 130, which was half mile away, was so loud that I couldn’t detect what was there with any accuracy. And so the last two counts I did just got overwhelmed by the City of Austin.
They—I’d done them for years and they were out near Creedmoor, and out southeast of Austin. And they were great counts but it just got to where because of the population in Austin, they—they just were not doable. So most of them you’ll find not real close to cities because city noise interferes with the—your audible recording of birds.
DT: Well when we cut just a moment ago, we were talking about iNaturalist, which seems to have—have brought this—this whole process of censuses and counts really into the 21st century and you’ve been a leader in there. I understand that you’ve done something like 260,000 identifications and the—lots and lots of [inaudible] you reviewed 13,000 users reports—I mean, it’s extraordinary. And I was wondering if you could talk about the experience of using iNaturalist and how you first got, I don’t know, sort of into that fold of people?
GL: Well I got into the fold of people on iNaturalist from a biologist at Texas Parks & Wildlife who’s now at Cornell but his name is Cullen Hanks. And he’s a biologist—he was a biologist at Parks & Wildlife. And he was over here one day, oh probably in 2011 or 2012, and he was looking at some photos of mine to use in something—some herp photos—snakes or lizards or something—and he said, you know, you ought to put these Texas snakes you have on iNaturalist. And I said what is that?
And he basically explained it’s a place where anything you have—plants, animals, whatever—you can post the photo and it’s—it provides a record of a certain date and a certain time and place for this species, which is archived and mapped and it’s a documentation of that species at that time and place and it’s there for others to see. And he said it’s a—we’re adding a lot of information about Texas herps and other things to iNat and, of course, you’ve got a lot—thousands of birds that would be really good to put those on iNat.
And I—and I looked at iNat and I realized that when you post something, all—I have—I have thousands and thousands of images but I have them on my computer and they’re not doing anybody any good except sitting in my computer and I can look at them if I want to. But I figured if I post this record of this bird species or lizard species here, I’ve provided some sort of scientific record of it that may be useful for someone in the future. And so I started doing that. And, over a period of years, I was able to go through my own slides and do a lot of slide scanning of older records and I’ve gone through a lot of digital images and I end up posting these things.
And it’s a—it’s a community sourced, community reviewed thing. So if someone posts a record of a—I’ll use ruby-crowned kinglet since we talked about that—somebody will post a record of a ruby-crowned kinglet at a certain place in Texas, I will look at it—I mean, I can see things that have been posted recently and maybe haven’t been what they call agreed with. And if I say yeah, that’s a ruby-crowned kinglet, all I need to do is agree with it and that ups the status of this to—to have a little more weight than if nobody agrees with it. It’s a community based thing.
So let’s say that somebody posts a record of a certain species and I’ll look at it and I’ll say no, it’s not that species. I think it’s something else. I can post—well I think it’s this species for this reason. I don’t think it’s the species you’ve identified it as. It’s—it’s another species. Then somebody else can come along and say yeah, I agree with whoever. I agree with Greg or whatever. I think it’s this. And so it’s a community based thing to where three or four people can look at something or as many—you might have forty people look at this thing if it’s a difficult identification.
So—but, in the end, it provides a record that people can use and I—I like doing that. I like the fact that we’re creating a database for all these different critters. And what—what has been in—there’s an example I use—if you look at a field guide to the mammals of the United States and you look at a range map and a range map simply shows where this animal occurs and if you look at most mammal books and look at the porcupine, it will show it coming from the West—New Mexico and into West Texas and into Central Texas but the range of it tends to stop out around Uvalde, out well west of here.
And it actually occurs closer to Austin than that. In fact, it occurs all the way into Austin. So on iNaturalist—and it’s a nocturnal animal, hard to photograph, but they get run over in the road all the time. And so when I can and the traffic is not difficult, I’ll pull over and photograph a dead porcupine on the side of the road and post that on iNat. And people say yep, that’s a porcupine. And so it’s an agreed upon record and I have photographed something like eighty road kill porcupines in this area all the way up into Austin.
And so the next time somebody’s working on a book on mammals of the United States, if they look at iNaturalist, they’ll see that the range of this animal goes about a hundred miles farther east than most of the books will show. And I think that’s an effort of citizen scientists or laymen that are helping to provide this information. So I found that to be, not only fun, but interesting that I can provide data on something. I have posted records of things I’ve photographed in Mexico years ago. I had a gentleman contact me about two months ago and he’s working or he’s described a new species to science of a type of lizard in Mexico.
And he found where I had photographed this lizard and didn’t know what it was and it was a thing that he had described new to science just a few years after that. And so he was very interested in where I’d photographed this thing and so it ate—added to his information about where this thing was found. And so things have—things like that iNaturalist provides a way for laymen or for citizens to participate, to some extent, in scientific efforts to document where things are. And I just find that fascinating.
DT: Well, could you maybe just I guess give some other maybe generalized comments because it seems like iNaturalist is—is one of many flavors of citizen science. I guess there’s iBird and there’s the Christmas counts and eBird and—and there’s also these water quality sampling networks. Wh—what do you see as far as—
GL: There are dragonfly things. There’s all this stuff. There’s many ways people can participate in this stuff. The problem you have or that I have to be cautious of is you can get so involved with this stuff that you don’t go outside. You just sit at a computer and—and deal with these—these different records. And I have to be careful because I still enjoy going out and wandering around and taking pictures. But you can get so involved with this stuff that you sit in front of a computer and you don’t—your whole life is in a—in a computer and I don’t want to do that.
But yeah, there are many ways to be involved at what level your interest is and in what subjects you’re interested. If your interest is only birds, there’s lots of way to do birds. If your interest is only certain types of plants, there’s ways to do that. There are many avenues to get involved now that were not there five years ago. So you can get as—as involved as you wish, you know, and—and you can help out where, until five years ago, there was no way to do that. So I think there’s a lot of opportunities if you’ll just do it, you know.
DT: Well this makes me think about all the—the data that’s being collected through this citizen science and—and I’m curious if you can talk about any trends that—that this is for—illuminated for you. I mean, I—I remember when I was a child; you never used to see white winged dove. And then they started appearing in South Texas or I remember you didn’t used to see collared dove and then they started appearing. And I’m wondering if there’s some examples like that that—that you’ve been able to understand better because of some of these censuses that you’ve looking at?
GL: Well you’ve—you’ve mentioned two that are very specific—white winged dove and Eurasian collared doves. There’re very well-known movements of these species. The same could be said about crested caracara. Even 25 years ago, you didn’t see them in Austin. You had to get down to Gonzales. And now they occur all the way up toward Dallas. And there are many things that 25-30 years ago, I’d be shocked to see in Austin but they occur now or some species that used to be only known in the Rio Grande Valley and now they’re common in San Antonio.
So there are—there are movements that happen and these various web-based ord—things like iNaturalist or eBird or something else help document that. But there are a lot of movements of things that we don’t totally understand the reasons. Is it—could it be climate change? Yes. Could it be—could it be just natural expansion of a species’ range because populations are getting more healthy and they need to spread out more? Yes. I—I don’t know the answers. I guess I see my role as helping to document what’s happening but I don’t have the knowledge to say why this species is now common in Austin and didn’t—didn’t use to be.
Now there are reasons. I mean, Chuck Sexton did a lot of work. In fact, his PhD research was on urban birds and urban bird populations. And Chuck has lots of information about white winged doves. And he’s got, you know, documentation on the first white winged dove in Austin when he first detected one after years of spending time looking at urban areas in Austin when, all of a sudden, white winged doves started showing up in the early ‘80s. And now they’re abundant all over Austin. So there’s a lot of information out there and people have put together why and how these things happen.
But I don’t have any formal, biological training. I’m a field observer and a photographer and I personally see most of what I do as photographing and documenting what I see and sharing that with people. And do I have opinions? Sure. But I—I hesitate to argue with people who know a lot because—about these things because I don’t. I just help provide the information from what I see from forty plus years of tromping around Texas. And what little I can help with, I see my role as providing the information and letting others figure it out because I’m not a biologist and I’m not a scientist.
DW: It inspires me to think of the question which you had a previous and correlating career in law enforcement and [inaudible] as I only have watched television shows about police officers constantly noticing things. Do you think there’s an overlap between the skills of observation that come from years of being law enforcement that translated over to this, that—that—or that they’re training you to look—looking for clues. Did you see that that was a complementary and is it an interesting or is it just random that that would happen? And you can address the answer to David as [inaudible]?
GL: I think that’s valid. As a police officer, you do and you’re trained to look for things. And so I remember as a young police officer riding around in a police car and with a training officer. So you go, you spend six months in a police academy and then you spend six months as a probationary officer with a more experienced officer. And I was trying to hard not to miss anything. I’d watch and look and try to watch for somebody making some unusual movement with their hand to their pocket, like they’re passing something to somebody or that guy might have a gun or that—that person’s doing this, that, and the other.
And, for a long time, I didn’t see any of that. I mean, I would look around but I wasn’t seeing much. And then I spotted somebody and I mentioned to the officer, I think that guy just did this and we’d turn around and go back and find out yeah, he just did this or whatever. And so you—it’s training and I think after a career in law enforcement, you notice when people do things. You have to watch people; your life may depend on it. You have to wa—watch what people’s hands are doing.
And so I think, in nature, with birds or with butterflies or with anything, you—I’m drawn to the movement. And—and I see what’s happening. And I’ve been out with other people that they’ll say how did you see that and I—I’m not going to sa—put it all on police work. I’m just going to say it—it’s also wildlife observation is I’m—I’m used to looking for things that draw my attention. It may correlate back to law enforcement, to some extent, but it’s also just spending time in the out of doors and noticing like movement that attracts your attention.
But I think just being aware of your surroundings is an important part of—of looking at nature anywhere you are. And, of course, I’m always looking for things to photograph. And so things draw my attention and I will investigate further.
DT: You mentioned just—just a moment ago that part of your witnessing nature, documenting it, reporting on, has—has involved photography and you’ve really become a very accomplished wildlife photographer from birds to mammals to reptiles, to small insects. And I was curious if you could walk us through, you know, your introduction to photography and—and how you’ve learned the trade over the years.
GL: Well kind of a long story but I’ll—I’ll give it a shot. Early on when I first came to Austin and got involved with Travis Audubon Society and started learning some about birds, I was out looking at birds and I would see something that was interesting and somebody would say oh, well that’s interesting but that’s not here. And so I’d say well, what am I—what am I seeing, you know? And so there was one occasion where I photographed or where I saw a bird and I was told well, that—that bird doesn’t occur in Texas.
And I said well I know what I saw but nobody would believe me. And so I decided I’m going to get a camera and be able to take a picture of what I saw so maybe somebody will believe me. So I had a 35 millimeter camera body that I’d had while I was in the Air Force. It was an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic II and I ended up getting a little Vivitar 300 millimeter lens and it was a screw mount lens, was an old camera I’d had when I was in the military. And so I carried that thing over my shoulder.
And I was out at Hornsby Bend, which is a weight—wastewater treatment facility here in Austin that, in those days, attracted lots of different birds during certain times of the year and here was a gull flying around this lake that I thought was the same gull I’d seen a year before or the same kind of gull. And I took pictures of it. Well fortunately, that bird stayed there and other people got to see it. But I had photos of it. I was the only one that photographed it and it was like the third record for Texas and nobody was telling me well that doesn’t occur here because I had photos of it and it was—the photos were—were doc—documentation of the record.
And so that was in ’78. So I got really interested, at that point, in providing documentation for things because I started getting more interested in the records Travis Audubon Society was keeping about birds that occurred here and I was more interested about birds that were occurring in Texas. And so it—I—I could read in these old reports that were written that, you know, such and such a species had been seen but there was no evidence to go with it and it was really not enough for somebody fifty years later to say oh, unquestionably, that’s what the bird was.
Somebody said it was but there was nothing to go with that. So I started being interested in developing a way that somebody could photograph things or some people would review the pictures of these things and there would be documentation that, long after I’m gone, somebody could look at the photos and say yep, that’s what that is. And so that was my driving force with photography. And, in the slide days in the ‘70s, there wasn’t a lot of people that had cameras that were out birdwatching and I was one of them.
And I can’t tell you the number of times that I would be sitting at home in Austin, Texas and come home from working as a law enforcement officer and there’d be a phone message, there’s a such and such bird at Bentsen State Park in McAllen, can you go photograph it, you know, and—because people didn’t have cameras. People didn’t photograph the stuff. And a number of times, I’d drive six hours to McAllen and try to find this bird and get pictures of it because I wanted so bad to—to show that it—it had been there.
And I drove as far as Big Bend National Park to photograph a bird that nobody else seemed to be able to photograph. And so I was a little nuts but I drove all around Texas with a camera and I have hundreds of bird photos that are in what they call the Texas Photo Record File at Texas A&M and I have the only photos of these things. And I would go photograph them and they’re still there. And they’re now published, they’re now accepted records. They’re in many books which I have here that mention all these things.
But back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there weren’t many people doing this. And I later got involved with developing the Texas Bird Records Committee and how we reviewed records of rarities and things like that but that’s where my photography started was just documenting unusual birds for the record so that many years later, the—the images were still there. But then in about 1986 or so, actually Ed Kutac who I’d mentioned earlier, had written a book about birding in Texas. And he had seen a golden cheeked warbler photograph I had that I had taken back in those days that he said I’d like to use this—this photo of yours on the cover of my book, are you willing to do that?
And I said well sure. And so he put me in touch with this publisher of this book in Houston and I sent them my slide and they used the slide on the cover. And they send me a check for three hundred dollars. And I thought this is cool, you know, and I thought maybe I can do more with my photos than just document rarities. And so in the mid-‘80s, I started thinking about improving the photos I was taking, improving camera gear, upgrading to this, upgrading to that, which is a never ending battle and it never stops.
But—so between the late ‘80s and into the 2000s, I started being fortunate enough to have a lot of things published in various magazines, Texas Highways published a bunch of my stuff, Texas Parks and Wildlife—many, many magazines. I would end up with images in magazines. And so that’s kind of where it all started. It started with documenting birds and then it moved into where I was actually more interested in publishing stuff. Well now that the digital world is out there, the numbers of images I have published have gone down considerably because there’s so many photographers.
Back when it was still slides, there weren’t a lot of us that had good quality images of Texas birds. Well now there’s a lot more. And I still sell photos but it’s not my driving force for—for photography. I do it because I just love doing it.
DT: And—and so some of your photographs are of landscapes, of maybe the birds of the—the mammals or the insects themselves and—and maybe you can talk about what you’re—you’re aiming for. I mean, what—what are you—what—what is—what’s in your photographic lens?
GL: Well I don’t—I don’t really do many landscapes. I—landscape photographers are a different breed and I know a bunch of them that are really good. And I’ve spent time with some really good—Jim Bones and other people—if you have heard some of these names or know these people—I spent time with some really good landscape photographers. I don’t do land—I mean, I take snapshots of a scene off of a mountaintop but I don’t consider myself a landscape photographer but I know some. [laughing]
But—so I—I typically consider myself somebody who photographs individual animals trying to capture that animal in its natural habitat in what it’s doing and what its life is at that moment. I don’t do a lot of—there are people that do setups in aquariums with—with insects and all the lighting is controlled and everything is controlled. And I have done that but I don’t enjoy it. I tend to—I tend to do things as they are in nature. I will use artificial lighting on occasion but I don’t—I don’t normally do setups where the situation is controlled.
It—it’s normally in the natural habitat, in the field, and I see myself as just photographing the animal or bird in its place in the world. Now there are times like I just returned from a trip to Africa and I was fortunate enough to see many different nice, big mammals that people look for—cheetahs and lions and leopards and that sort of thing. So I will photograph this stuff up close and I’ll have a lot of images where the—half or two-thirds of the frame is a lion face but I also would do things where the lion’s down in the lower left part of the frame and the rest of it is the whole grassland with the Serengeti and the trees and the lion’s a very small part but it’s still capturing the animal in its habitat.
So I guess if I do—if I would put a label on my own type of photography, it’s certainly focused on—on individual species or individual critter—sometimes multiple individuals in the same frame but—but it—it would be the animal in its habitat doing what it does without man interfering with it I—I guess is the way I would describe it.
DT: And—and are some of the photographs trying to not only capture the habitat where these creatures might live but also some of their natural history, I mean, whether they’re feeding or breeding or nesting or…?
GL: Yeah, I—I will—I’ve got a series of photographs I took of a dragonfly emerging from its exuviae. Of course, dragonflies live several years as an aquatic insect in the water and then a certain time and place, this larvae crawls up on a cattail or whatever and then the dragonfly emerges as a flying insect. So the dragonfly that we see in the wild flying around is on its very last few days or few weeks of life. It’s—it’s spent most of its life in the water like a shrimp underwater.
So I’ve—I’ve spent seven hours with one larva as it—as the dragonfly emerged photographing it every thirty seconds all night long and had all those merged into a little movie, you know, of this thing emerging. So I’ll do that or I’ll—or I’ll photograph—I have a—there’s a mantis called a—one of the mantis that occurs in South Texas called a unicorn mantis and it’s got a big horn on its head. It’s a very sp—different looking praying mantis but I’ve got a photo of one of those consuming a dragonfly. And I’ve got a whole series of shots of this thing eating this dragonfly.
It took about an hour, you know, and so I’ll sit there with it and the camera’s on a tripod and about every 45 seconds, I’ll take a shot and so I’ll have a whole series of this—this behavior taking place of what this critter was—was eating. And so I do a lot of that sort of thing rather than just one shot of a certain species, I’ll often do that if the opportunity presents itself. So I—but I do tend to focus on an individual bug, bird, mammal, whatever, rather than, you know, the scenery involved.
DT: And—and so some of these are—are still, some are time lapse, some are movies as well?
GL: I don’t do movies. I’ve never done videos. They’re all still images. I have nothing against movies. It’s just that I don’t want to get myself so spread out I don’t know what to do, you know. And I—I’ve seen people that—I don’t know whether to take a movie or to take a still or do this or do that. I just take my photos. I—I don’t want to—I’ve never done video. I have cameras that will do incredible video but—but I’ve never done it. So I tend to concentrate on just what I do because I don’t want to spread myself out so much.
I mean, I—my nature is to do something and do it very well. Like I got involved with birds and I didn’t do anything but birdwatch and study birds for like 35 years. I didn’t look at a butterfly. I didn’t look at a dragonfly. I didn’t look at anything except birds. If I saw a dragonfly, I’d ignore it. And I’m not proud of that. I’m just saying that’s what I did. And then in about 2000 because of a photo contest I was in, I had to broaden my horizons a little bit and I’ve enjoyed it. But I tend to do—I—I’m not really knowledgeable on a wide variety of things.
I—I tell people I know birds in the U.S. and Central America very well. I know dragonflies in the U.S. very well. I know butterflies in Texas very well. Beyond that, I fall apart. I can’t tell you anything about beetles. I can’t tell you anything about a lot of things but I—I—I tend to work on a number of things and learn them well. And I did that with my—the jobs I’ve done. I worked at being a police officer for 25 years and I didn’t spend a lot of time doing anything else other than my bird stuff. But now, as I get older, I find myself being more interested in nature in general.
And this has only been about the last fifteen years but I’ve been very involved with dragonflies, been very involved with butterflies. And so I—I will say that I have broadened my horizons more in the last fifteen years than I had in the thirty years before that.
DT: Well I guess to—to capture the image of a bird or a dragonfly, you’d need different kinds of equipment. And I was wondering if—if you could explain a little bit about the bodies and the—the lenses that you, you know, typically you might use on a shoot?
GL: Well a lot of this is a Ford or Chevrolet question, which do you like, you know. And there are many—there’s not only what I tell people when I’m trying to help them learn a little bit about photography is there’s not only one way to do things. There’s many ways to do things. And I tend to use Canon equipment but that’s only because that’s what I’ve always used. It’s not because it’s any better than Nikon or anything else. I just—that’s what I use.
And yes, I—when I’m photographing dragonflies and butterflies, I have a particular lens and setup that I tend to use and it’s not adequate for birds because I have a—what they call a extension tube on it which allows me to get a little closer but then that takes away my infinity focus. So with my dragonfly setup, I can foc—photograph things up to about fifteen, eighteen feet away. Beyond that, it won’t focus because I’ve got something inserted between the lens and the camera that lets me get physically closer.
And so I often carry a camera over my shoulder, which I can just get some documentary shots of a bird while I’m still doing my real serious butterfly and dragonfly photos. If I’m really serious about bird photography, I’m using a pretty long lens, a long lens like a 600 millimeter lens on a tripod, which you can’t do butterflies and things with. If I could develop a little lens that didn’t weigh much, I could carry in my hand and do everything, I think that’d be wonderful. But, so far, I don’t think that’s happened. But I have—I’ve been fortunate enough to have a quite a wide variety of camera equipment, all the way from extreme wide angle lenses to very long, heavy telephoto lenses and everything in between.
And so if I’m const—I will tend to take a trip and take a variety of things with me but, at any given time, I tend to be using just one or two things, depending on what I’m doing at that time. But then I may see a situation—I may be out somewhere and I’d gone there to try to look for a certain bird species but then I see there’s a field of flowers, it’s full of butterflies—I’ll put down all the bird stuff and I’ll change everything and deal with what nature presents. And I’ll—I’ll take advantage of the situation in front of me. And so I won’t use the equipment I thought I was going to use but I generally will have something else with me.
DT: And the equipment you’re using now, I—I gather it’s all digital. You’re no longer shooting slides?
GL: No. I—I—I was out with a friend in 2002 and I had—I’d—I swore I’d never change from slides and he had already—was shooting digitally. And I just said I’m never going to do that. I like slides too much and this and that and the other. And we were out together and it was a grey day, not unlike today, and we’d stop somewhere and there was a cardinal on a perch just outside the car. And he was—he was on the passenger side of my car. I was on the driver’s side. And he had—he was standing up shooting over the top of the passenger side of the car.
And he’s just blasting away at this cardinal and I’m looking through my lens at this thing and I could get a twentieth of a second, you know, and you can’t shoot birds at a twentieth of a second. And he’s blasting away and he’s a very good photographer. And I’m thinking what are you doing? He said oh I’m shooting at a 250th a second at F8. And I’m saying how are you doing that? He says well I’m shooting at 800 ISO. Course, I’m shooting Kodachrome 64 and I—and I couldn’t get a 25th. And I’m saying—I say that’s—you can’t do that.
He says oh yeah, I can shoot at whatever. And so he had an extra digital body with him and I had a lens mounted on a bean bag on the driver’s window of the car. And so I—the Canon digital bodies would fit on the lens. So he gave me this body and I sp—put it on the—put it on the lens I had and I took some pictures of this cardinal at a 250th a second at F8 or whatever. And I thought oh God, what a waste of time this is. So we came back to my house and he had a little—in his little computer bag—had a card reader and I’d never plugged in a digital media card.
It was those old IBM cards with the spinning disk on the inside of one, I don’t know, few megs, whatever it was, I don’t remember the size of it. But we plugged it in and we called this image up in Photoshop and, all of a sudden, here’s a whole face of a cardinal in front of me and I could see every barb on every feather and I could see every eyelash on this bird when we enlarged it up to a hundred percent. And it was just like I had an epiphany. And I just said I’m done with film.
I just—right then, I just ended it and I never—I’ve never taken another shot on film before, not that film isn’t great and there’s a lot of good things about it but I—I saw that on a grey, darkish day, I could get a very nice image of something. And I ordered a camera that day from B&H and I’ve never gone back. And I just—I totally changed on December 7, 2002. [laughing] It was Pearl Harbor Day. But I still remember that when I—when I just looked at the image and I couldn’t have done that with slide film at all. And so it, to me, made a huge difference. And I’ve—I’ve really enjoyed it.
DT: And—and then once you have an image, whether it’s a scan of a slide or it’s—it’s a digital file, do you manipulate it much in Photoshop?
GL: Not much. I will—I—I take things right out of the camera kind of flat. I don’t—I don’t add any—any enhancement or anything of the camera. But I import these things into a program called Lightroom, which I use, and I bump the saturation a little bit. I will do a little cropping sometimes. I will adjust sh—I will lighten sha—if I have shadows, I’ll lighten the shadows a little bit. But I don’t really want to spend the time. I’ve watched people who are magicians in Photoshop and I know people who—who are so incredible at Photoshop, they can do anything.
But they may spend 45 minutes or an hour with an image. And I don’t have time. I’m not going to do that. I—I know how to use five percent of Photoshop but I know that five percent. And I know how to use Lightroom ten or fifteen percent but I know that ten or fifteen percent. And so I know what I do and I know how to do what I need to do but I don’t—I don’t go looking for ways to change the photos. I know—I know that there’s capabilities to doing all kind of things. But other than doing a little cropping, maybe adding a little saturation to the color, maybe lightening shadows, maybe darkening hot spots a little bit, that’s about all I do.
Only because—but—but I will say recently I had a photo of a great horned owl that was used at the Travis Audubon Society annual dinner for George Cofer. They were presenting him with a—the Victor Emanuel Conservation Award a month ago and he likes great horned owls. And so I provided the images that are used as a presentation as this award for a number of years. And the—they had picked an image of a great horned owl I have. And I had sent the image to a—oh gosh, I’m embarrassed, I can’t think of her name—I’m hoping you can cut this out because I can’t remember her name—I could come up with it.
But anyway, to a photographer who creates the print and everything. And—and she does—in Photoshop—I went to her house and she took my image of this great horned owl and made it look really stunning, you know. Now it’s the same image. It’s not that it’s different. It’s just that she knew how to enhance certain things that I don’t do a lot of. And it was a beautiful image. And not that I don’t—felt good about the image to begin with. She just made it better. But—and then they presented this to George Cofer at this Award Ceremony and it was a—a very nice, large print, framed and whatnot.
But—so I know people can do things in Photoshop that I just generally don’t.
DT: Well you—I think you earlier mentioned that—that some of your images have been used in—in Texas Highways, Texas Parks and Wildlife, American Birds, other magazines, and—and, of course, framed for George Cofer and Travis Audubon. But I understand that you also had a book published through Texas A&M Press, Texas Wildlife Portraits, I think.
Greg Lasley’s Texas Wildlife Portraits, yeah.
DT: Yeah, can you tell us about the experience of—of putting that book together?
GL: Well, in about 2007, I—some folks at the mem—Texas Memorial Museum on the UT Campus wanted to have some of my photos on display about Texas wildlife. And so I had crea—I—I had a great, big large photo digital printer at that time and I had done photos or they had had some prints made also. And they had a display of thirty or forty Texas prints. Some of them were 11×17 prints. Some of them were large, you know, 19x whatever, you know, fairly large prints, and they had them on display in a hall there at the Texas Memorial Museum.
And the opening of this—they had a little wine and cheese get-together and they invited a bunch of people that I helped select from a list and that they had selected. Victor was there and a number—there were oh fifty, sixty folks there. And one of them was Shannon Davies, who I’ve known for a long time, way back when she worked for Texas A&M—or U—University of Texas Press. Well now she’s a—is in charge of the press at Texas A&M. Well Shannon was there also and during the course of this, after seeing all the prints that were up there, Shannon came to me that evening and said we need to do a book on some of your Texas wildlife images.
And I thought well, great. I guess we can do that. And she sent me an email in the days to come and—and gave me her idea of what she wanted to do and she wanted me to pick like around a hundred images of Texas wildlife that would go in this book. And, of course, I had many—tens of thousands of things and so I think the most difficult thing for me was how do you select a hundred images from thousands that would represent critters in Texas that I thought was representative of the state, representative of me, representative of the kind of photos I take.
So, over a period of time, I think I narrowed it down—okay, here’s a thousand but no, that’s not going to work—we need a hundred. And then okay, here’s five hundred. And, you know, we—I finally got it down to somewhere around a hundred pictures. And then she and Texas A&M Press and her husband, before he passed away, put all this into a book, which was published by Texas A&M Press in 2008. And it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed doing it. And so it—it’s ten years old now. It’s out of press but still a few copies are floating around here and there.
But it kind of represented the photos I took then and still do actually. I—very similar to the kind of stuff I still do now. But it was fun to do and a lot of work and I—Shannon’s offered me the opportunity to do another book or two and I just have not taken her up on it yet. But perhaps I will.
DT: And how did you come up with the text that accompanied it? I think—is it John Tveten had written the introduction on [overlapping conversation] the captions?
GL: Yeah, I wrote the caption for each one. John Tveten and his wife, Gloria, wrote the introduction, a very generous introduction by John and Gloria. And then I just simply took each image that I was going to use once we’d decided on them and just did some short, some longer, little explanation of the photo and—and of the species and what it’s doing and why it’s doing it and—and made that for each—each one of the shots. And, in the end, I—she wanted for the photographer’s sake that I could put all the photo details.
And, of course, for—I was always mystified back in the slide days how people could publish a book years later and say this was f—this was 500th of a second at F8, at such and such and I didn’t record all that stuff when I was shooting slides. But digitally the camera records it all. So it was real easy to say yeah, this was—this was at a 500th of a second at F11 and da, da, da, da, da, da, da because I’ve got all the information embedded in the metadata of the image. But about one quarter of the photos in that book are slides.
And so and about three-quarters of them are digital ss—because the book was in ’08 and I’d gone digital only in ’02. So a lot of the images in there were—were slides. But scanned slides, of course. So that’s how that came about and I just would write the caption just to go with my memory of each one but every—I can look at—I was mentioning earlier—I probably have a hundred thousand images of wildlife. But I can look at an image, just like anything in your life, I can look at an image and look at it and I remember what happened.
I remember that image when I took it, where I was, what I was thinking, what I was hoping would happen, what I was hoping wouldn’t happen. I mean, I can look at almost any photo I’ve taken and it brings back memories of that occurrence. And so it’s kind of like when I sit here and somebody wants to look at a photo I have a of a certain species, I may find one from ten years ago and I can look at it and I remember every detail about taking it and where I was and who I was with and all that. So it’s kind of a travelogue of what you’ve done.
DT: Well, you know, speaking of travel, this might be a—a chance to switch gears a little bit and talk about your career as a nature guide and your work with Victor Emanuel Nature Tours and—and your visits around the—around the world.
GL: Okay. In 1978, Victor moved from Houston to Austin. And I’d never met Victor but I’d heard of him. You know, Victor had started a nature tour company and his name was known among Texas birdwatchers. He was one of the premiere birdwatchers in Texas. He’d started the Freeport Christmas bird count in the late ‘50s and so he was well known. When Victor moved to Austin, he didn’t know anybody in Austin. And so, as Victor tells it, he called Ed Kutac and said I need to meet some of these Austin birdwatchers. Who should I talk to?
And I think Ed gave him my name and gave him Chuck Sexton’s name and gave him a few other names. And so Victor literally just called me on the phone one night. And so I answered the phone. He said hi, I’m Victor Emanuel. I moved to Austin and I want to go birdwatching. I said okay. Where do you want to go? So we went to McKinney Falls State Park in October of ’78. So is that forty years ago? ’78? Or fifty years ago? Forty years ago, I guess. So forty years ago this month, Victor and I—he would have been in his thirties, I was in my twenties. I was 28.
He was probably 37. He’s nine years older than I am. So we went to McKinney Falls State Park and—and he and I can still remember. We had a green kingfisher. I remember we saw a black-throated green warbler. We saw several things that he and I both have recounted over the years occasionally. But anyway, Victor and I became friends. You know, we took a few trips together. We’d go out to the Texas Hill Country and whatnot. This went on for four, five, six years. And in 1985, Victor had—his tour company had grown.
He was—had a number of tours that went all over the U.S. One of his Texas trips was called Spring South Texas. And it was led by two of his leaders. And Victor called me rather in desperation one day and one of the leaders had had an illness or a death in the family and this was like two days before this ten day trip was going to start, and he said can you fill in and lead this trip with the other leader? And I said, Victor, I’ve never done a—I’ve never done a—I’ve never led a trip.
I mean, I’ve led some trips for an Audubon Society but I’ve never—I’ve never led a professional bird trip. He says yeah but I know you. You know all the birds. You know where to go. You know how to do all this. You can show birds to people. And I contacted my—my supervisor at work and tried to see if I could get the period of time off that I would need to do this and I was able to do that. So in—in May—April of ’85, I led a ten-day South Texas trip with another leader. And it was, you know, people enjoyed it. People got along with me all right.
I didn’t have any problems with it. And so Victor said well would you like to lead like one trip a year, take vacation time and lead one of my trips once a year? And I thought well, I could do that, you know. And so I led the Spring South Texas trip again the following year. And then by the third year, I was the main leader on the trip rather than a second leader, I was the main leader. And then in—oh in—this was ’85-’86—in ’87, I started leading some trips to Mexico. Victor and I led a couple trips together.
He would take me on a trip that I would be a second leader on and then the next year, I was often the main leader. So I did several trips in Mexico where Victor would introduce me to places that I had not been before and then within a year or two, I was, you know, I would do sometimes two trips a year. So Victor was incredibly kind and generous to me to let me lead trips around—I led trips in Mexico. I led trips to see polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba. I led seven or eight trips for polar bears. So I got to do things that most people wouldn’t get to do and I was being paid for it, you know.
So I made—over the years, I made thirteen trips to Antarctica. And so I became the main Antarctica leader for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours because I didn’t mind doing these over the Christmas holidays, which was a popular time for these trips because it’s summer down there and it’s the time when the penguins have all their chicks but a lot of the leaders for VENT had small kids and I didn’t. And so I didn’t mind being gone at Christmas. And so I, at that—by the mi—by 2003 or 4, I had more experience in Antarctica than anybody else that worked for Victor.
I’d been there thirteen times. And so I was the main Antarctica person. And so I got to lead trips in Arizona and California and Florida and Texas and Manitoba and—and Mexico and Panama. And so Victor was very generous to me. And, of course, when I left the Austin Police Department, I retired from the Austin Police Department in ’97. From ’97 to ’05, I led trips pretty much fulltime for Victor. So I led the same trips that I was describing and, you know, I’d lead seven, eight trips a year—a couple—two hundred days a year I was leading trips.
And so Victor just allowed me to do that as much or as little as I cared to do. And I just reached a point in 2005 that I wanted just to do more of my own photography and not spend all my time showing birds to other people. I wanted—it was very much a selfish thing on my part. I—time’s short. Life’s short. And I wanted to do more photography and it’s very hard to do photography when you’re leading a group of people on a trip. You can’t just say oh, y’all go entertain yourself; I’m going to go spend an hour photographing this—this butterfly. You can’t do that.
And so as much as I enjoyed leading trips for Victor, after twenty years—’85 to 2005—of leading trips, I just reached a point where I told Victor I’d really appreciated it everything but I really felt I wanted to just do my own photography. And that’s—that’s what happened with that.
DT: Well and—and during the course of those twenty years, gosh, so many trips you would have taken but can—can you maybe give us an example of a trip—I—I think you used to guide in El Triunfo.
GL: Oh I—yeah, I led that trip at least a dozen times.
DT: Maybe you could tell us about how those trips often went or a typical day during that kind of tour.
GL: El Triunfo is a preserve in Chiapas which is the southernmost state in Mexico adjacent to Guatemala. And Chiapas is probably the most wild state still in Mexico. There are vast areas of untouched wilderness. And it’s very much—much of it is still in pristine condition and hasn’t been destroyed. However, the first trip I did to El Triunfo was in 1987. My last trip there was in 2005. So over that eighteen years I guess, I saw a lot of change, not in the core part of the preserve but in the outlying areas.
In 1987, there’s a place called Paval, which is—used to be a coffee plantation on the lower edges of the mountains and it still had vast, wonderful areas of—of tropical forest around. By 2005, almost all that was gone. It was all corn fields. And so I think I became incredibly aware of how fast the forests are disappearing from even places like Chiapas, which is remote and wild. And I saw places where I had been leading people through forests looking for forest species of birds that was now corn fields.
And I saw that happen just in the twenty years I’ve been leading trips there and I haven’t been there now in almost fifteen years. I really shudder to think what it looks like now because from ’87 to 2005, it had changed drastically. And I’ve seen that in other places. I’ve seen it in the U.S. I—I go to places now that I used to go with Ed Kutac in the ‘70s around Austin near the airport. And they were country roads with vast fields of wildflowers and incredible numbers of birds and now it’s all gravel pits and—and things of that nature. So El Triunfo and just other experiences have just told me how fast the world changes and how—how little control individuals have over the loss of so many things that I used to enjoy in El Triunfo.
Now I think the core is still there. But it takes constant battling to preserve what’s left, you know, in El Triunfo especially. Within the trips I did to Mexico, that was the one that really, really stuck—struck home with me. But there are species of birds in El Triunfo that occur nowhere else in the world. There’s a big iconic bird called the horned guan and, at that time, there were thought to be about five hundred of these in the world. That was it. They occurred in a range—it was about a hundred miles long and about fifty miles wide in the mountains—the Sierra Madres of—of Chiapas and adjacent Guatemala.
And so we were fortunate enough to see that bird every trip I made there. So I never missed it. But sometimes you just see one, you know, but it’s a big turkey sized bird with a huge red horn sticking out of its head. It’s an amazing creature. But it’s amazing to be in a place like the Cloud Forest at El Triunfo that still has animals and birds that are almost—that are very little known to science and some that are unknown to science, as I mentioned earlier when we were talking about iNaturalist—I’ve had a—a guy that described new species to science contact me about a species of lizard he was describing from that forest and I had photos of it.
Now I’ve photographed other things there that had only been described within the last five years. Before that, they were unknown to science. So it’s amazing how many things are there because it’s this vast cloud forest that is largely untouched by people. So it’s a real magical place.
DT: And when you would take people there, you—I guess you’d meet them at the airport, fly down there, you’d find your inn, and then say the first day of birding, wh—wh—you get up early I suppose?
GL: Well it—it’s a—it’s not a place like most trips. In fact, there’s a lot of camping involved on this trips. So the—the way the trip would typically work out is people would—would end up meeting at the Mexico City Airport and we might spend a night in Mexico City and get everybody together, make sure we have everybody. And then we’d fly to Tuxtla Gutierrez in Chiapas and spend that night in a hotel. And the next morning there would be vehicles there driven by local drivers and we would head off and make a six or seven hour drive to a community called Jaltenango de la Paz, which is in the foothills of the mountains.
And it took about six hours to get there. And we would camp and this is not a trip with hotels. I mean, most of the VENT trips are very nice accommodations. There are some that are camping trips because there are no facilities. So we would get to Jaltenango de la Paz and then we would go by truck up to a coffee plantation. And we would set up tents and se—and have tents and we would—they would have—Victor would arrange for—now back in the early days, we took freeze dried food and Victor and I would cook freeze dried food and all that.
In the last oh number of trips I did, they’d have Mexican cooks that would bring all the food and there’d be a bunch of ladies that would set up fires and they would cook for us. And we’d have rice and beans and all the wonderful food that the—the Mexican families would make for us. So we’d spend one night at this coffee plantation and then the next morning we’d get up early and start hiking up the mountain. And from the north side as this—as the trip I’m describing, we would hike for about eight hours to get up to El Triunfo.
Now horsemen—we weren’t backpacking. We were carrying binoculars. And we had hired horses to carry our equipment. So the horses would carry a duffle bag for everybody which had tents and had your equipment and clothes and blah, blah, blah inside. So the horses would carry the stuff and go on and then the big piles of bags would be in the clearing in El Triunfo when we got there. And then we’d set up tents. And there was actually a little adobe building or two up there and we’d have—the ladies would march up the mountain with us and they’d have all their food prepared.
They’d bring live chickens and, of course, they’d kill the chickens when it was time for dinner, you know, and all that. But so we would set up tents and then, in the morning, we’d typically break into two groups. We usually had eight to ten participants and two leaders. And so one leader would have—have five or six people and the other leader would have five or six people and we usually had a local guide also that li—rangers that lived there that knew the birds and knew the area.
So we would launch off in two different directions and then we’d come back together at lunch and compare notes about who had seen what and then we might go the opposite—each group would go a different way. We had four different trails we could go on at El Triunfo. One of them went this way through the forest and had this much elevation gain. Another one was more flat along a river valley and, you know, you had different ways you could walk. But we were always looking for some of the specialty birds that occurred there—the horned guan, the azure rumped tanager, various other species that you might only see rarely.
And so we did that—we’d spend five day—five nights at El Triunfo. You’d do that every day. Then typically we’d go out the Pacific side which was three days. And so the first day we’d leave El Triunfo and horses would go ahead of us so we’d go to a place called Canon Honda, which means Deep Canyon and so we’d camp there and birdwatch along the trail and then we’d birdwatch there. And we’d spend the night, get up in the morning and go to another location and spend the night, and then the third day, we’d be back at the area I described earlier called Paval, which I’d seen so much change over the years.
And then finally, the last day from Paval, we’d hike a number of miles to a little village called Três de Maio, the third of May, where vehicles would meet us from Tapachula, which had been arranged ahead of time. And all this has to work like clockwork because there’s no communication. They just have to be there when we get there and there’s no way to contact them. If they’re not, you’re just twiddling your thumbs. There’s no way to call anybody. So it generally always worked out. Sometimes they were late. Sometimes they weren’t.
But we would get in the vehicles, they’d drive us down to the little community where the horseman lived and the horseman’s family would fix us a wonderful meal of rice and beans and we would—it was always big show to settle up. We had to—it’s a cash economy. And so we’re paying for the horses per horse like so many dollars per day for each horse and so many dollars per day for each man. And so it was always a big scene where all the groups—all our group would stand around and all the horsemen would stand around and their main negotiator—oh gosh, what was his name—Arial—Arial would be the negotiator for the group of horsemen.
And he would plot out okay, this many days, this many horses, this—this many dollars and this many men and this many day—we’d all have it out on papers, very formal. Of course, we’re happy to pay what we paid them. And then one year they’d raise the rate five dollars, you know, and we had to well I don’t know if we can do that, you know. And so we’d have all these little show of arguments but finally we would settle up our bill with them and then the taxis would take us back to Tapachula where we would spend the night in a hotel and then we have flights out the next day.
So it was quite a wilderness trip for people that were—most of the VENT tours, like you said, are staying in hotels and it’s all a little more—more civilized. But the El Triunfo trip and a few others Victor does are—are true wilderness trips. And El Triunfo is one of them and I—I thoroughly enjoyed those trips.
DT: Sounds like an adventure.
GL: It is very much of an adventure.
DT: I see we’re getting late in the day and…
DW: The sun’s come out. Behind you.
GL: What time is it? I don’t even know.
DT: I have about 11:25. Well this might be a good segue to talk about something that we often visit with narrators about. Favorite spots. Is there a location that you enjoy visiting that gives you solace, pleasure.
GL: There—there’s a—an account—I—I suppose—I don’t know if you’ve heard of Louis Agassiz Fuertes who was a artist who painted birds in Texas in the late 1800s, early 1900s. In 1901, Fuertes and Vernon Bailey and Harry Oberholser made a trip to Big Bend. And it was before it was a National Park and it involved a train ride from San Antonio to Alpine and then horses—where they hired horses in Alpine and rode the week or two to get up into Big Bend. And they spent a number of weeks in Big Bend.
There’s great accounts about Fuertes and the birds that were collected and whatnot. And many of the places they describe in that account, which occurred in 1901 when they were there. And I’ve read that account or the book many times—Singular Beauty of Birds is the name of the book where this account is. But Fuertes describes a number of situations there and I’ve been to those places and looked at that rock and seen where he was. And I tend to, you know, when you’re fantasizing about such things, I tend to—there’s a couple places I think I might have been.
I—I might have been on that trip and I might have been on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Those are a couple things I like to think I—I was on in a previous life. But Big Bend, if I had to pick one place, it would be Big Bend would be my favorite place. There’s a particular spot whenever I’m there that I like just to sit down and it’s up near the south rim where—where Boot Canyon—if you go Upper Boot Canyon where it gets up toward the south rim, there’s a—there’s a place up there I like to just sit. And that’d be—I’m sorry, I get emotional.
GL: I just get emotional about a few places.
GL: So anyway, I think Big Bend is a place that is just part of me. It’s just—so that’d be a place that I would consider one of my re—favorite places in the wo—in the world.
DT: [inaudible] of course. Probably—is there a beautiful view into the [overlapping conversation]?
GL: Oh yeah, you look out into Mexico and it’s just, you know, you’re looking from the top of the world and it’s just a place that I’ve spent a lot of time and I just enjoy going there and it’s just—I have an emotional attachment to it.
DT: Yeah. [inaudible]. Well—well one last question that I—I try to ask everybody is—is from all the experiences you’ve had, you’ve probably stored up a lot of thoughts and—and perspectives. And I was wondering if there are any insights that you would want to pass on to people that might he—see this video—younger people, in particular?
GL: Well one—I guess there’s a couple things that come to mind. I told you at one time I worked at the Atlanta Zoo in the late ‘60s. And there was a gentleman who’d written a book about keeping stakes. He was the director of the Brooklyn Zoo and it was a book called The Keeper and the Kept and it was by Carl Kauffeld. And I had read a lot of—lot of his stuff. And I had a place I used to hunt snakes down near Macon, Georgia, which is the same place that we talked about where I took this girl.
And it was—it was an abandoned location that had—during World War II, I understand, had been a place where they had manufactured some sort of military parts or whatever, but it was several hundred acres and it was abandoned buildings that had since fallen apart. And they had a lot of metal roofing laying around and I’d pick up all this roo—and it was a magical place for snakes. It was full of snakes. And I just always kept it a big secret. I didn’t tell people about it. But I could see even in the ‘60s how on the edge of this, they were starting to build some other thing and I could see how things were encroaching upon my snake hunting place.
And I wrote a letter to Carl Kauffeld at the Brooklyn Zoo. He was oh certainly in his seventies by then. He’s long since passed away but—but I still have that letter that I wrote in ’68 or ’69 describing this place. And—and it was—I could see how people were going to build there. And—and what can I do to stop this, you know. And, of course, he wrote me a very nice letter back to an eighteen year old kid and saying well, what can any of us do when developers move in and, you know, there might be some way that you can catch specimens from there and introduce them into places where they’re a little bit more preserved.
And he said, finally, at some point in the future, almost all wildlife is going to be relegated to parks and preserves. There’s not going to be much in other places. And as an eighteen year old kid who’d spent all of my life wandering everywhere, that just seemed so far-fetched to me. It just seemed like there was critters everywhere. It wasn’t just in a park or a preserve. But, in very many ways, that’s come to pass. I realize that this stuff doesn’t last if people don’t make it last. And that letter—I take it out and read it every now and then because it—I think what Carl said is true.
You know, I also think back to what I described about the corn fields coming up around this forest in Mexico. Just over the eighteen years from the first time I went there in ’87 until 2005, it had changed drastically from a lush, tropical, evergreen forest to a corn field of which they can only get one or two crops out of and then the ground is wore out and they can’t even use it after that. It’s just dirt. And I understand people need to eat and I understand that they need to grow food for people, but I saw so much change and the areas around Austin, I’ve seen change and it does not last.
The—the—the habitats, the wildness, the places we enjoy now will not be there unless we take steps to make them be there. And I think that’s—this was also brought home to me the other day in Tanzania. I was talking with one of our driver guides of the Safari vehicle, had been a ranger for the Tanzanian government protecting rhinoceroses and cheetahs. That was his main job was to catch poachers. And I was talking about, at one point, we had a whole lot of vehicles parked at one particular deal where a leopard had a kill and there were a lo—number of other safari vehicles there.
And I was kind of saying wow, there’s a lot more people here than I thought there’d be here. And, of course, I’d had the same experiences looking at polar bears where you’ve got a lot of people in these tundra buggies and this sort of thing. And the guide said well, that’s true but, he said, if it was not for you, Western Europeans and Americans that spend money to come here, none of this wildlife would be here. You know, basically the farmers—if—if a lion gets out of these huge preserves and gets into where it’s killing their goats or going to kill it, you know, and he said all this area would be farms and he said, the wildlife wouldn’t be here any longer if it wasn’t for people who wanted it to be here.
And he said there’s enough money that comes in from tourists that one quarter of Tanzania is preserved for wildlife. We sure can’t say that in the U.S. But one quarter of the country of Tanzania is wildlife preserves because people come there and spend money. He said these animals are only here because you come here and pay money to see them. And I don’t—it left me feeling odd but I can see what he’s saying and I—I look around us now and you drive—I mean, you drive from Dripping Springs to Austin and even five years ago, there was nothing along 290 and now it’s all shopping centers and growing every day.
And there are something like nine thousand homes have been built out here in Dripping Springs in the last five years. And if I could say anything [01:56:50] to people is—is you have to set aside places for nature or man just overwhelms. And I think I’ve seen that so often in my life from the time I was a kid until now. It just—it’s drastic and you don’t realize it at the day you’re looking at it, but you sure do when you have a perspective of years. So I guess that would be what I’ve seen.
DT: Yeah. Well that’s a good message. Well is—is there anything you’d like to add?
GL: I can’t think of anything else. I appreciate the opportunity. I hope I’ve provided some information that’s of interest. Like I’ve—we’ve talked before, I—I don’t—I don’t go out and work specifically on conservation issues. I—I take photographs, I share them with people, I document what I see and provide that information to others who might know better how to use it than I do. I’m just an observer of the natural world and share what I see with others.
DT: It’s plenty and it’s—it’s—it’s wonderful that you’ve shared your time here today with us. So thank you.
GL: Well, you’re very welcome.
[End of Interview with Greg Lasley – November 9, 2018]